General Assembly

At the state level, the Virginia legislature is called the General Assembly. It is the oldest elected representative body in the United States in continuous operation.

The General Assembly started in 1619 when the colony was a private corporation run by the Virginia Company and Jamestown was the colonial capital. The General Assembly survived the switch from private company to royal colony in 1624.

The General Assembly divided into two parts in 1643, when the Governor's Council of State became a separate group from the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses last met in 1776, when the colony declared independence and became an independent state.

the journal recording the last meeting of the House of Burgesses concluded with a flourish
the journal recording the last meeting of the House of Burgesses concluded with a flourish
Source: Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia

The House of Burgesses was recast as a House of Delegates in the new state's constitution and the Governor's Council was converted into the State Senate. The US Congress, with a House of Reprsentatives and a Senate, was not started until a dozen years later after ratification of the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.

There are 140 members of the General Assembly - 40 members in the State Senate, and 100 members in the House of Delegates. Voters elect the 100 Delegates to the House of Delegates every two years., and the 40 State Senators serve 4-year terms. Elections to the General Assembly are held in odd-numbered years such as 2017 and 2019, while elections to the US Congress (the Federal legislature) occur in even-numbered years such as 2016 and 2018.

After the Civil War, black men were elected as both delegates and state senators. Between 1890-1967, no blacks served in the General Assembly. That pattern began to change in 1967, when Dr. William Ferguson Reid was elected to the House of Delegates from a Richmond district.2

From 1869-1882, control of the General Assembly shifted between "Funders" and "Readjusters." Conservatives sought to limit the political and social options for the newly-freed slaves, and objected to paying higher taxes to support public schools for them. Funders supported using state revenues to repay the pre-war debt obligations for transportation projects, maintaining the state's credit and future ability to sell bonds. Readjusters called for reducing the state's repayments based on post-war economic distress, and using more of the state revenues to provide services to citizens.

In 1882, conservative Democrats took control of the General Assembly for the next 90 years. In 1902, a revised state constitution restricted the electorate and blocked most blacks from voting.

The Byrd Organization dominated Virginia politics between the 1930's and 1970's. It supported the election cycle where state officials were chosen in separate years from Federal officials. The conservative, "keep taxes low" Senator Harry Byrd advocated in odd-numbered years for Democratic candidates to be elected to state and local offices. In even-numbered years, the Senator supported conservative Republican candidates or maintained a "golden silence."

Senator Byrd died in 1965, when the few Republicans serving in the General Assembly were powerless. The Republican Party was the alternative to the Byrd Organization, so it was relatively liberal compared to the Democrats. The Republicans blocked blacks from participating in party conventions in 1920 and ran a "lily-white" ticket for state offices in 1921, but the national Republican Party was still the Party of Lincoln.

At the national level, the Republican Party was viewed as more conservative and the Democratic Party was viewed as more liberal, but in Virginia it was the opposite. The key issues protecting Democratic control were keeping taxes low, and ensuring whites had more economic and social opportunities than blacks.

In the 1950's, Senator Byrd was a key leader in the Massive Resistance movement to block school desegregation in Southern states. In Prince Edward County, the local county government kept the public schools closed for four years, in hopes of perpetuating the separate-but-equal system - even after Federal courts had determined "separate" was far from "equal."

In 1969, the Democratic Party in Virginia split and the state elected its first-ever Republican governor, Lynwood Holton. The political tides shifted, and the old political alignments fell apart in 1973.

That was the year of "Armageddon," according to a book of that name by Virginia election scholar Larry Sabato. The state Democratic Party was unable to agree on a nominee for governor. Liberal Democrats united behind progressive populist Henry Howell, while former Democratic governor Mills Godwin switched parties and ran for the office as a Republican. Conservative Democrats chose, like Godwin, to acknowledge they were now Republicans at the state as well as the national level.

after the 2010 Census, boundaries of State Senate districts were redrawn - and clearly show how population is concentrated in Northern Virginia
after the 2010 Census, boundaries of State Senate districts were redrawn - and clearly show how population is concentrated in Northern Virginia
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Division of Legislative Services, Redistricting 2010

In the 2011 election, the Republicans won control of the State Senate. Before that election, the Republicans controlled the House of Delegates but Democrats controlled the State Senate by a majority of 22-18.

The Republicans won a net of two Senate seats in 2011, allowing the Lieutenant Governor (a Republican) to break tie votes. The Lieutenant Governor decided the state constitution blocked him from breaking ties on the votes to approve the budget, so the budget in 2012 was delayed. Finally, one Democrat (State Senator Charles Colgan from Prince William County) voted to approve the budget, and it passed 21-19.

House of Delegates districts near GMU Fairfax campus, after 2010 redistricting
House of Delegates districts near GMU Fairfax campus, after 2010 redistricting
Note that the City of Fairfax, outlined in black, is a different political jurisdiction than the County of Fairfax.
If you live in the city, you can vote for members of City Council... but not for the Board of County Supervisors.
However, the state Delegate for the 37th District is elected by voters in the city and a part of the county, including the Fairfax campus.
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services

Despite the significance of the 2011 election, in which control of the State Senate hung on a switch of just 2 seats, only 15 of the 40 contests for State Senate had only one major party candidate on the ticket. Only 27% of the major party House of Delegates races included contests between Republicans and Democrats, and in many of those contested elections one of the Republican/Democratic candidates had "no experience, no money, no campaign organization and no hope of victory."2

Redistricting has allowed incumbents to shape districts that ensure re-election, consolidating Republican-supporting voters in some districts and overloading other districts with Democrats to create "safe seats." Thanks to the power of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, politicians now choose their voters when election districts are revised after every Census.

Prior to the Baker v. Carr US Supreme Court decision in 1962 that voting districts had to have approximately the same number of people, the political machine of Harry Byrd had structured Virginia districts so urban areas were under-represented and Byrd's rural supporters elected an excessive number of General Assembly members. Once the urban areas received full representation, the General Assembly politics changed - and after 1965 Virginia voters approved borrowing money for roads, building a community college system, and selling liquor-by-the-drink in public restaurants.

Ethnic and racial biases still affect Virginia's politics, but Virginia's population is too diverse, and too concentrated in urban/suburban areas, for a rural-based "organization" to dominate the state again. The swing vote that determines the winner in statewide elections is now concentrated in areas with a blend of urban and rural characteristics - the suburbs, places such as Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford, Chesterfield, Chesapeake, Gloucester, and York counties.

References

1. "African American Legislators in Virginia," Virginia General Assembly Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Commission, http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/lincoln/african_americans.html (last checked October 22, 2016)
2. "Two-party system on the ropes in Virginia races," Washington Post editorial, October 25, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/two-party-system-on-the-ropes-in-virginia-races/2011/10/24/gIQA7wJ6GM_story.html (last checked October 29, 2012)

Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, home of the colonial governor - both the chief executive and head of colonial General Court, 1699-1775
Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, home of the colonial governor - both the chief executive and head of colonial General Court, 1699-1775

Links

the 10th District in the House of Delegates, represented by the Minority Leader of the Democratic Party prior to the 2011 redistricting, was located in Southside Virginia
the 10th District in the House of Delegates, represented by the Minority Leader of the Democratic Party prior to the 2011 redistricting, was located in Southside Virginia
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Division of Legislative Services, 2001-2010 House Districts


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